I have started my sabbatical now, which is a little weird. I'm not going to Central to work, but it's not exactly vacation either. My goal these days has not been to avoid work, but rather to take a step back and try to gain some perspective. For a number of days now I have felt like I had little or nothing to say, like the words had just gone away -- a little intimidating for a preacher and a writer, I can tell you. But God is there in the wordless places as well.
Partly I've been doing some fun things. Julie and I came back today from a couple nights camping in northern Wisconsin. That was good, but rainy. We found a couple wonderful coffee shops along the way, played Scrabble (Julie won this time) and did some reading and some journalling and some hiking and some just kicking back around the fire. Today we climbed the observation tower at Copper Falls State Park, and had a nice conversation with a whitetail doe that came wandering by the foot of the tower just as we were about ready to start climbing.
I'm doing more devotional work -- just investing in my relationship with Jesus -- than I normally do. This is a very good thing, especially when I run short of words to talk about God. For example, I've been continuing my trek of reading through the gospels. Right now I'm in the middle of Luke. (I already read the other three, starting with John back in early August.) Since Central is working through Ephesians this fall, I've been listening to a set of Chuck Swindoll's cassettes (!) that I found on a shelf at church a few weeks ago. Chuck does an amazing job of exegesis as he works through Ephesians, and applies the texts personally as well. I have especially loved his work with the last few verses of Ephesians 1. Amazing. I listened to that one twice.
One of the most intense relationship-with-Jesus things I've been doing lately involves going on Youtube and setting up playlists of Jesus Culture music. It's not terribly intellectual stuff (that's okay) but it's passionate and intense and drives (usually) one simple idea to the core of your consciousness if you let it. I wouldn't think it's a good substitute for scripture (though most of the songs are deeply rooted in scripture), but as a way to pray and meditate differently, it's great. I've needed that focus, that discipline, that intensity because it feels like I'm trying to break through some old wineskins, old walls, and hoping to give the Spirit of God some more room to work and change me. (That's one great line from Chuck Swindoll's Ephesians series -- to paraphrase, he says that if you're connected to power, the surest sign of it is change. So his question is, how has God changed you lately? If you can't name some changes, you're probably not connected very well.) Not sure yet where that leads, specifically, but I do have a sense that God is working in these sabbath days.
One of Jesus Culture's songs that has especially captivated me lately is called "You Won't Relent". The repeated verse says simply, "You won't relent until you have it all; my heart is yours." Then superimposed over that later in the song are the words, "I don't want to talk about you like you're not in the room; wanna look right at you, wanna sing right to you." The song climaxes with the chorus, "Come be the fire inside of me, come be the flame upon my heart. Come be the fire inside of me, until you and I are one."
I feel so often like Jesus is that kind of a Lord -- one who won't relent until he has it all, who is jealous, passionately jealous for us, for me, who longs to be the flame of my existence, to drive me, to grind me against the rocks of this life, to sift me. It's often an uncomfortable relationship, an uncomfortable life. Much of the writing I hope to complete on this sabbatical explores this relentless relationship. We'll see where that goes.
One of the realities I struggle to communicate well is that for me, this uncomfortable, passionate edge of my relationship with Jesus is somehow all tied up in (and most accessible, and most real, and most confusing, in the midst of) my love of hunting and wilderness. God has consistently used wilderness places and experiences to drive me deeper in my relationship with him. Often these wilderness experiences are uncomfortable, too. But I am thoroughly addicted on all counts. So I have taken some flak for scheduling my sabbatical during the fall, and those who know me well have raised an eyebrow and said, "So, doing some hunting on sabbatical, huh?" And I grin and nod. But those who know me better look right through me, right through my jokes about hunting seasons and vacations. They nod and don't say much. They know that the God of Sinai, the God of Jesus' temptation, will meet me out there. A precious few will go hunting with me in the wild places, seeking with me what their souls and mine crave together. My daughter called me the other day and said she'd freed up a weekend from her college obligations and she really, really wants to go hunting together. That's like rain on dry ground, let me tell you.
So I don't apologize for starting my sabbatical on the opening day of the bowhunting season in Minnesota. (For the record, I haven't been out hunting yet. That day is coming.) I don't understand the link in my heart between wilderness and spirituality, but I know I can't deny it, any more than I can explain it. I just have to live it for a while. That is at least part of what this sabbatical is about.